A scientific celebrity is a scientist who has gained significant public attention, usually through the media. For the general public, scientific celebrities serve to represent science or a field of science, usually in an unofficial capacity. In some instances, such promotion can be self-serving in nature, can be at the behest of governmental or corporate interests or to promote the science involved.
With every new scientific discovery, various people come to be publicly known for their contributions to knowledge, medicine and methods of transportation in the field of this discovery. Although this type of public recognition has become more common in recent times (coincidental with the rise of celebrity culture), the phenomenon is centuries old with many examples of scientific celebrities. Media attention to science became more pervasive beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the variety of media outlets increased and media outlets gave greater attention to scientific progress. Scientific celebrities have had a significant role in the popularization of science.
At times, scientific celebrities are also known as public scientists.
Early historical examples
In the late 17th century and early 18th century, Isaac Newton became widely known in the United Kingdom and much of the western world after he published his theories of motion. Others, such as Voltaire, promoted Newton's reputation. Although Newton did not actively promote himself, he was concerned about maintaining a good reputation.
Charles Darwin pursued popularity among the general public following his 1859 publication of his theory of evolution. This included distribution of mass-produced photographs of himself and his projects. He carefully selected interviews and public appearances. He responded to his mail with pre-printed responses. Darwin made available low cost editions of On the Origin of Species for reading by the general public. Statuettes of a monkey contemplating a human skull became widely available following the rise of Darwin's fame.
By 1919, shortly after Albert Einstein published his seminal work on the General Theory of Relativity, Einstein became well-known among the general public around the world. By then, experimental data appeared to support Einstein's theories, and this revolutionary new way of thinking of the physical world commanded significant public attention. Science historian Abraham Pais wrote, “Einstein, creator of some of the best science of all time, is himself a creation of the media in so far as he is and remains a public figure.” Einstein's rise to celebrity status is traceable to November 1919 as major news outlets such as the Times of London and the New York Times reported on the scientific breakthroughs. Einstein was at times uncomfortable with his celebrity status, as it compromised his privacy. However, he used his fame to advance social causes for which he had strong conviction, such as Zionism, nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and pacifism.
Astronomer Fred Hoyle rose to prominence by 1950, especially in the United Kingdom. He hosted a series of radio broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Company entitled, "The Nature of the Universe". Hoyle was for a time among the most popular broadcasters in the United Kingdom, and the book version of his radio broadcast was a bestseller.
In the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century, cosmologist Stephen Hawking achieved celebrity status. This was initially through his research publications on black holes and other aspects of cosmology. In 1988, he published "A Brief History of Time", which was a book that provided insight into cosmology for the general public. Hawking's celebrity status grew rapidly, and his involvement in popular culture was perpetuated through television and radio appearances, biographical books, and being the subject of a movie, "The Theory of Everything". At times, Hawking suffered from public scrutiny of his private life.
Lists of notable English language popularizers of science and of science communicators are available.
The Sagan Effect
Carl Sagan was an accomplished researcher in the field of planetary science by the time he published his 1977 book The Dragons of Eden, on the evolution of human intelligence, targeted for general, non-scientific audiences. With this book, Sagan earned the Pulitzer Prize and became famous. In 1980, Sagan hosted the television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which cemented his status as a scientific celebrity. Time Magazine called Sagan "America's most effective salesman of science". He also received significant financial rewards for his books, television shows, and television appearances. However, Sagan was also a university professor at the time that he first achieved celebrity status. Influential academic peers perceived Sagan as a popularizer of science and not a serious scholar. He was denied academic tenure at Harvard University, although he later became a full professor at Cornell University, despite his significant achievements as an independent researcher. Science historian Michael Shermer termed this the "Sagan Effect", since this form of academic snobbery applies to some other scientific celebrities.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was similarly associated with the Sagan Effect.
A 2016 discussion of the Sagan Effect indicated that the effect was continuing to persist at that time, even though it may be in decline as academic institutions have become more engaged in public outreach.
Role of the media
The means of media reporting on science and the amount of science reporting have evolved significantly since science reporting first began, just as it has with journalism on most subjects. Early on, scientists gained the publicity necessary for celebrity status through traditional print media, including newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and mailings. The lecture circuit was another means, especially for self-promotion. By the middle of the 20th century, broadcast media such as television and radio and eventually cable television became important outlets. The rise of digital media enabled scientist to directly address the general public. Many other people have become known to the public as a result of media promotion. Heads of state, heads of governmental units and religious leaders have long received this type of media attention in representing interests other than their own. Scientific celebrity is similar, and C. Everett Koop is an example of a scientific celebrity who gain celebrity status through his work for a governmental agency, as Surgeon General of the United States.
A further form of scientific outreach in the digital age is TED Talks. Science is one of the basic themes of Ted Talks, and examples of scientific celebrities who have presented TED Talks include E.O. Wilson, Barry Schwartz, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, and Laura Boykin, among others.
Science by press release
At times, some scientists have inappropriately or prematurely publicized their research findings in the media, by press release or press conference. This has typically occurred when the findings have questionable scientific merit, and the scientists appeal directly to the general public. At times the host institution is complicit. This type of science by press release is seen as an example of pathological science. Cold fusion is an example of this behavior.
Some television presenters such as Richard Attenborough, Patrick Moore and David Attenborough have scientific qualifications, and some like Bill Nye have engineering qualifications, but these presenters are primarily known for their own presentations of scientific topics rather than their contributions to the advance of scientific knowledge. Some media outlets have science editors or science reporters who are specifically tasked with reporting on scientific developments. These individuals often do not have scientific training but rather are professional journalists, a notable example being Jules Bergman of ABC-TV in the United States.
Actor Alan Alda has taken up the cause of aiding scientists in communicating with the general public. His efforts are not limited to scientific celebrities and include scientists that are not well-known. Alda's method emphasizes improvisational techniques.
Additionally, some celebrities are known for their roles in the media but not for their work in science, such as Mayim Bialik, one of the stars of the television show The Big Bang Theory, who has a PhD in neuroscience. Another example is actress Danica McKellar who has published original research in the field of mathematics. Another is comedian and science writer Kasha Patel.
Fictional scientific celebrities
Fictional scientists sometimes become famous through the media. These are often for educational purposes, Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus being an example. Fictional scientists also can be for entertainment purposes. These can be comic, such as Morgus the Magnificent, or dramatic, such as Dr. Frankenstein.
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